Consumers often abandon products when other social groups adopt them. Teens want to distinguish themselves from their parents. Jocks want to separate themselves from geeks. Rich Brits stopped buying Burberry once it became the brand of choice for soccer hooligans and Shanghai urbanites avoid the Volkswagen model that is preferred by the suburban nouveau riche. Yet, the same teens who wouldn't be caught dead wearing the same jeans as their parents have no problem using the same brand of detergent. A new study by Stanford researchers explores why some products are used by people to differentiate themselves from certain social groups.

"Prior work on individual drives for differentiation tells us a lot about who is more likely to prefer unique products or when people might be more likely to prefer them," write Jonah Berger and Chip Heath (Stanford University) in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. "But these approaches have less to say about where people diverge, or why people diverge more in certain domains."

In a series of experiments, the researchers explored the differences between products that convey identity information and products that do not tend to be identified with a certain group. For example, in the pilot study, the researchers had undergraduates choose options in 19 difference product areas (e.g., power tools, hairstyles, soap, and favorite CD). In each area, they were told that 65 percent of other students preferred Option A, 25 percent preferred Option B, and 10 percent preferred Option C. They were then asked which option they would choose.

Option C establishes the greatest desire for divergence from the majority. While 67 percent of undergraduates chose Option C for the category of favorite CD, only 6 percent chose it when asked about dish soap. In a national, web-based survey that expanded on the pilot study (median age 38), the results were similar. A different group of respondents was asked to rate products either on self-expression ("how much it contributes to self-expression") or identity inference-making ("how much people use it to make inferences about others").

Thirty-one percent of participants in the national survey chose Option C (preferred by 10 percent of the population) for products that were ranked as highly identity-relevant. For products that were less identity-relevant, only 16 percent of participants chose Option C.

"Consistent with our focus on the social nature of identity-signaling, even though our internet sample came from a range of demographic backgrounds, participants exhibited strong agreement about which domains were identity-relevant," the researchers write. "The results underscore the social nature of divergence; individuals don't establish difference from majorities in every domain or any random domain - they do so more in domains where others look for signals about their identity."